Mr L from New York called to tell me he’s in pictures and ‘dis Brown guy – whadda ya got?’
He sounded as if he was being strangled by his neck-tie, unless it was the effort of carrying a sub-machine gun under his arm. I think I caught his drift, but before I rifle my collection for a selection of images that will somehow capture the essential style of Capability Brown and so satisfy his curiosity, I fancy I should revisit the whole question of the image and the landscape.
My good friend John Dixon Hunt has made the point that the full title of Thomas Whately’s Observations on modern gardens (1770) was Observations on Modern Gardening: Illustrated by Descriptions… Now other friends like Mr L, whose visual sense is particularly acute (he claims he can pick off the bad hats at two blocks), will look for pictures in their books, but we would be wrong to dismiss Whately’s argument that landscape – Brown’s landscape in particular, appeals mostly to the imagination and the mind’s eye.
Hear my predecessor and mentor, Joseph Addison, as he heralds the subject in 1712: ‘Words, when well chosen, have so great a Force in them, that a Description often gives us more lively Ideas than the Sight of Things themselves. The Reader finds a Scene drawn in stronger Colours, and painted more to the Life in his Imagination, by the help of Words, than by an actual Survey of the Scene which they describe. In this Case the Poet seems to get the better of Nature; he takes, indeed, the Landskip after her, but gives it more vigorous Touches, heightens its Beauty, and so enlivens the whole Piece, that the Images which flow from the Objects themselves appear weak and faint, in Comparison of those that come from the Expressions. The Reason, probably, may be, because in the survey of any Object we have only so much of it painted on the Imagination, as comes in at the Eye.’ – He continues in the same excellent vein, but I hope this argument is already sufficient to satisfy any critics of Whately.
The question remains though, how should I most helpfully reply to Mr L? Take a late master-piece such as Berrington. I could send him photographs of the view across the lake and up the lawn to the house, but nothing could tell you less about what is really going on. In fact I would shake any man’s hand who could assure me that that view had been designed as a joke, to baffle the ingénue. No, you cannot understand Brown if you have no imagination – all his effects depend on the friction between what you think you see, and what is actually there.
I shall suggest to Mr L that he makes his way to the master-classes that will be held at Scampston, Yorkshire on November 25th and Berrington, Herefordshire on November 27th 2015, with all the enthusiastic support that the Capability Brown Festival, Historic England and the National Trust between them can muster. Oh Mr Brown, your birthday is upon us and we shall live the year long in laughter, loud and lavish. These will after all be amongst the events of the season – everyone will be there, and it will be a chance for the Brown advisor and correspondents to meet.